Several humid Colombo summers ago, Colts Cricket Club coach Nishantha Weerasinghe saw a familiar frame batting in an unfamiliar way at the nets. The puzzlement turned to admiration, as the youngster, Kusal Perera, stroked a couple of gorgeous cover drives. After the session, he bantered at the young leftie: “Next match, you bat right-handed!”
Perera explained to his coach that he’s a natural right-hander — he still writes and throws with his right hand — only that the Sri Lankan batsman who left a lasting impression on him in his childhood, like it had on several children his age in the late 90s, happened to be a certain leftie, Sanath Jayasuriya. “Back in the day, everybody wanted to bat like him. It’s quite natural, you have a great batsman and a lot of youngsters want to emulate him. So, suddenly a lot of young left-handed batsmen came around. He was one of them,” says Weerasinghe.
Only that, he wasn’t just one of the run-of-the-mill impersonators. He took deification to an elevated level, tearing up every poster other than Jayasuriya’s in his house, wrapping every textbook with pages of newspapers flashing his favourite cricketer’s face, painting a colourful, unfamiliar bird on the top of his cheap bat to resemble the famous Kookaburra willow Jayasuriya brandished, and once even requested the barber to trim off hair from his forehead to resemble the balding crown of the man dubbed the Matara Marauder. That’s when his father Kithsiri Perera, a small-time businessman, read out an old feature on Jayasuriya’s background aloud, of his humble origins from the tourist town of Matara, his self-tutelage and conviction on his unorthodox batting methods.
He wrapped it up with a piece of advice: “You can do whatever you want to show your admiration, but to reach his level, you need to take the game seriously and put in a lot of hard work.” Kusal, then 10, enthusiastically nodded his head and slipped away into the backyard, searching for his self-designed piece of wood.
But there was no formal coaching near his house in Pannipitiya, a nondescript Colombo suburb, it’s market was in tatters after a bomb blew off in 2006, the last of such with an LTTE stamp. And his father didn’t have the means to enroll him in a cricket academy in the Sri Lankan capital. But fortunately for Perera, he didn’t slip through the eyes of school cricket coach Duminda Gunasekara. As his school Kottawa Dharmapala Maha Vidyalaya was not among the elite, he taught his wards only tennis-ball cricket. But he was so struck by young Perera’s raw hitting ability that he began training him separately with a leather ball.
From his meagre salary of Rs 5,000, Gunasekara brought Perera his first pair of gloves, then requested the principal to buy him an authentic cricket bat, before a couple of years later helping him gain admission to the famous Royals College on a sports scholarship. It was three years later that he reached the Colts Club, on the back of his exploits for Royal College, especially in the fierce derby matches with St Thomas College.
“That’s how young cricketers get noticed by scouts. His big hitting then was the talk of the town,” says the coach. The Jayasuriya comparisons weren’t far away, and news of the ‘new Sana’ in town raged on faster than fire. Later, though, he would come to realise the flip side of such billings. It’s in the soul of Sri Lankan cricket — to celebrate an unorthodox talent when he’s winning and cast him away when he’s sinking.
There’s ample evidence of Jayasuriya-deification in his build and technique — massive forearms, a strong bottom hand, the slightly open stance with the back leg more across than the front leg, the initial half-prod, or in the manner he throws his arms at the ball when hitting down the ground or the way he throws his body at the cuts, or the sliced aerial drives.
In his earlier knocks, Perera had presented the most believable imitation of Jayasuriya’s trademark short-arm pull, though these days, realising the risk in that stroke on bouncier surfaces, he has ditched it. Now his pulls are more conventional, the entire body swivels.
Similarly striking is the demeanour — he cuts a quiet figure off the pitch: soft-spoken, modest, wholly undemonstrative. Generally, after reaching milestones, he shuts his eyes, draws a deep breath and appears to drift off, perhaps imagining he is hearing the gentle tinkle of temple bells rather than the relentless clack of camera shutters. Like Jayasuriya.
But he is not just another Jayasuriya replica. He loves to play straighter, has a more upright elbow and is equipped with a tighter defensive game. Agrees his mentor: “He has evolved in the past few years, made a lot of technical tweaks and realised that what suits his idol might not suit him. He was smart enough to realise that at a young age. He has now created history and an identity of his own, both his batting and achievements.”
In February, as Kusal Perera frolicked on the Kingsmead greens, his white jersey soaked in sweat, tears, and soil after he orchestrated one of the most bedazzling heists in Test cricket, his junior coach Jerome Jeyaratne, holding tears of joy back in Colombo, felt like jumping onto the telly and rolling with the ward. He muttered to himself: “Finally, his day arrived, the day we had all been waiting for.” The day he became more than just a Jayasuriya clone.
It was memories of another day, three years ago, that came rushing to his mind — the day news broke that Perera had tested positive for doping. Perera and some of his teammates were out looking for an Asian restaurant in Dunedin when the batsman got a message from an unknown number about a confidential e-mail. Kusal hurried back to the hotel to read the e-mail, and as he read it, his world came crumbling down. “You have been tested positive for steroids, please return to Sri Lanka as soon as possible,” it said.
He straightaway met team manager Ravi Silva, who was unconvinced by his denial, and a ticket was booked for his flight back home. “He was inconsolable, as any youngster would be. It happened a day before our first Test in Dunedin, and like everyone, he was well prepared and now his dream was shattered. But then, he showed tremendous courage to fight and overcome the ban, which convinced me that he had the mental courage to be a good batsman,” Jeyaratne says.
Back in Colombo, conspiracy theories swirled around, from him trying some exotic drug in parties to being framed by bookies. Upon landing, Perera met sports minister Arjuna Ranatunga, who offered him support. But shortly, he was landed another blow when his B sample too returned positive and he faced a four-year suspension. That’s when the SLC counsel advised him to meet an expert sports chemical pathologist, who, after examining the drug report said he was doubtful of the recorded levels. There was a glimmer of hope.
The SLC then hired a reputed law firm based in the UK for an astronomical fee and appealed his ban. In a month, after another test in a lab in France, he was cleared of the charges. “It was his character that shone through the ordeal. He was determined to prove himself correct and always stood by his statements. Before leaving he told me that he would bounce back stronger” says Jayaratne.
A few months later, he did bounce back with a thumping hundred against Ireland in an ODI, but a prolonged lean spell, against better sides like England and Australia, allied with injuries, pushed him swiftly on the back-burner again. This, in fact, has been the story of his life — talented yet not consistent, cruel fate striking at the most inopportune time — until his Kingsmead knock. He went back to the Colts, a little confused, a trifle deflated.
But Weerasinghe advised him to shed his over-obsession and reminded him of an old story — of his quest for a big knock, which he thought was keeping him away from Test robes (he had made his ODI debut a few months ago). Perera, prone to self-destruction, was desperate to score a double hundred. To achieve it, he became occasionally over-conscious, shed his attacking style and lost his way. The coach, though, advised him to unclutter his mind and bat normally. The brief was: “Bat freely, without inhibitions.”
A few innings later, he racked up the maiden triple hundred in Sri Lanka’s premier first-class tournament — 336 off only 275 deliveries. The opponents, Saracens Sports Club, managed 324 in both innings. “That was incredible hitting and cleared a mental hurdle. It gave him the belief that he could be a Test player and a good one at that,” he says.
It took him six years to reprise the same feeling in Tests. And in Durban, four months ago, finally that day arrived, when he joined Sri Lanka’s batting elites by scoring perhaps the most precious 153 runs in their Test history. The day he also became more than a Jayasuriya clone and absolved him of that accidental taint.
Few nations celebrate miracles like Sri Lanka, sporting and otherwise. The recently mutilated St Anthony’s Church in Kochikade is called the “Church of Miracles”. It’s deity St Anthony is called the Miracle Worker, and the priest who found it, Antonio, prayed and repelled a tsunami, it’s believed. Closer to the present, Pope John Paul II made an unscheduled stop there in 1995.Thousands of Sri Lankans every day — among them Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims from far corners of the diverse nation — find their way to the shrine in a corner of the church, seeking relief from disease, financial troubles or even relationship stress.
In sport, the country has had more than its share of what it calls miracles. Winning the World Cup in 1996 was one. Beating England at The Oval in 1998 was another. Then there was the Miracle of Leeds in 2014, Galle in 2015 and Durban in 2019. To win the World Cup — in these times of talent drain, whimsical selection policies and overarching mediocrity — they need but a miracle of the grandest scale. But they believe they have a miracle worker among them — Kusal Perera.